Instead of viewing her individuality as a risk to her continued success, Natalie Morales channeled it into bringing groundbreaking queer characters to the small screen in shows like Dead to Me and Abby’s, telling the kinds of female LGBTQ+ stories that television has been slow to acknowledge. But that’s not where the breadth of her accomplishments ends – Morales, who admits she doesn’t want to be “pigeonholed” as an artist, recently assumed her place in the director’s chair with two feature films, 2021’s Language Lessons and Plan B.
Even with a growing resumé of directorial credits, Morales hasn’t slowed her career in front of the camera. Her latest film, No Hard Feelings, sees her and Jennifer Lawrence starring as a pair of cash-strapped best friends in Montauk, and chaos ensues when Lawrence’s Maddie answers an unusual Craigslist ad. The Untitled Magazine sat down with Natalie Morales to talk No Hard Feelings, along with other exciting projects she has on the horizon, and the part she’s played in bringing LGBTQ+ stories to TV. Read her full interview with Editor-in-Chief Indira Cesarine below.
INDIRA CESARINE: I want to hear everything about you and the projects you have coming up! I know you grew up in Miami, Florida. How did you end up getting into acting?
NATALIE MORALES: I didn’t even know that it was a possibility. I didn’t know that I could do it as a career. In high school, I got randomly put into a drama class, and it changed my life. I was just used to being the class clown, and I didn’t know I could turn that into a profession where people would pay me. I had just discovered this thing that I loved, and I decided that I would try to pursue it. I went to college for it in Florida – I went to [Florida International University] for acting. At some point in the middle of that I was like, “Why am I learning acting from people who are teaching it in Florida?” And then I moved to LA with my best friend, and we had this insane amount of confidence where we were like, “We’ll move out to LA, and in a month we’ll have an agent, and then in two months we’ll be on TV, and it’ll be great.” I think that kind of insane bravado is what got us to do it. It didn’t quite work out that way, but yeah, that’s how it happened.
Did you get an agent pretty quickly when you moved to LA?
It took around six months to meet my manager, who’s still my manager today, and who I feel very lucky to be working with. He’s like family. There are so many horror stories about managers preying on people who just moved to LA, so I got really lucky. Mine is Vincent Nastri. He’s just like an angel, honestly. We met at a bar when I accidentally almost threw a dart at his head. I don’t know why, but he decided to sign me, and here we are.
That’s a great story of getting signed! So, you’re of Cuban descent, right? Is your family creative? What was life like growing up at home?
No, they’re not. Nobody in my family is in the arts. My whole family are Cuban refugees, and I feel like I’ve said this before, but I feel like all Cubans are so funny, and so even the most shy, boring of Cubans will tell you a story in the most entertaining way that you’ve ever heard. I think it’s a common thing for people who are oppressed to somehow find a way through that oppression, and it’s no different for Cubans.
What inspired you to pursue acting? Was there any sort of impetus that set you off?
I think I always wanted to perform in some way. I would do magic shows for my family when I was a kid, and thank God they let me because that must have been torture. It’s interesting – I do owe so much to the sacrifices that they made for me because when you think about it, what do so many rich people who don’t have to worry about money do? They get into the arts; become artists or actors. And when you’re really poor and you come from nothing, you have to work. You don’t have time to pursue arts, you know? So, maybe some of my family would’ve gotten into that. My grandfather would sing around the house all the time, but he didn’t have the funds and the accessibility to pursue that, or even the idea that [the arts] could provide for his family because he couldn’t take that risk. They made all these sacrifices and gave me the space to not have to worry about what I was going to eat that night, and if I was going to have a roof over my head, and if I was going to be okay, and that made me be able to express myself in these ways. They also tolerated all of my choreography and dance shows and magic shows when I was a kid. Even though nobody in my family is in the arts, they all were really supportive of me and my weirdness as a child. I think it just bloomed from there.
You’ve played a number of queer roles, including Abby in Abby’s and Michelle in Dead to Me. I understand you had a “coming out” essay that you did a few years ago, which focused on the stories of lesbian women being acknowledged. Do you feel like the industry has changed and become more inclusive since you wrote that essay? How do you feel now regarding the industry as a whole and LGBTQ inclusion?
It wasn’t that long ago, so I don’t think that much has changed in the industry. I think things are changing in our culture all the time, which of course affects the industry that I’m in and the arts. There’s been such an unprecedented attack on LGBTQ+ people in the last few years in this country. We’re in Pride Month right now, but it feels very scary out there. I mean, the Human Rights Campaign put out a warning for LGBTQ+ people in the United States, especially in the state of Florida, my home state. I think that the culture and the life around us affect the art that we make and affect the people that we put on screen. I hope to continue to normalize all sorts of different people because we exist and we’re here, and I have hope for humanity that a lot of the hate comes from fear and lack of knowledge. I think that the more people get to see that people who are different from them exist and can be their friends and have full, rich lives, the less they will be afraid of it and the more accepting they will be. I hope to continue to be a part of that.
It’s admirable that you’re so vocal about the issues. Let’s talk about your new movie that’s coming out this summer, No Hard Feelings. You’re starring opposite Jennifer Lawrence – that must be very exciting. Can you tell us about your character in the film, Sara?
Jennifer Lawrence’s character’s name is Maddie, and I play Maddie’s best friend, Sara. They live in Montauk, in the Hamptons, and they’re year-round residents. We were just talking about economic disparities and it’s kind of that – these people that have way more money than they do come to vacation in their hometown, and they are residents who work year-round. She’s a schoolteacher who works all year, and then in the summer she works as a waitress. She’s pregnant, and she has to do all this stuff just to make ends meet in this town that she grew up in, but that she can’t really afford much longer. So, [Sara and Maddie] are trying to figure out ways that they can make some money.
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience working with Jennifer?
I’m not sure when she did Causeway, but she had just had a baby seven months prior. So, I think it was her first time working full-time with a child and as a new mother. We talked a lot, especially playing best friends in this movie, and we had some real heart to hearts. It was really great getting to know her.
Any highlights from filming? Were there any moments where you were like, “Wow, this is incredible,” or that really resonated with you?
Getting to film in Montauk was really awesome. I had never been there, and we got to be on the beach, although we did film mostly in November. It was supposed to be summer, but it was freezing on the beach and raining. It was so, so cold, but other than that, it was beautiful – it was really beautiful.
You’re set to appear in the third season of The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, which sounds exciting. Can you tell us a bit about your character?
They won’t let me say anything!
Anything you can reveal about the new season?
No, except I will say that it was so wonderful to be a part of! It’s a huge and amazing and talented cast. The writers and everybody behind it are so good. It was one of my favorite shows before I was on it, and I’ve been lucky enough to do that a few times with different shows that I have loved. I felt so welcome and so at home with really huge people that I admire so much, like Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, so it was really nice to be a part of.
You’ve also directed films and gotten behind the camera, including Plan B and Language Lessons. Is there any reason why you chose to also direct aside from acting? What was your motivation to get behind the camera?
I started out acting, and similar to acting, I didn’t even think I could direct because I had never seen anybody like me direct. Then I started working in this business, and I realized that my friends and I – people who looked like me – were not getting the roles that I knew we could get. If we were getting casted at all, it was as the best friend or something. I’m the best friend in [No Hard Feelings], but I mean the girl who’s the ethnic sidekick, you know? I knew that we could do more than that. I started writing, and as I was thinking about getting those things made, I was like, “Well, who’s going to direct these?” And then I was meeting with directors and I was like, “They’re gonna ruin it. They don’t see it the same way that I do, so I better learn to direct.” I started directing a lot of my friends’ music videos for free because I wanted to learn how to do it, and I have a lot of friends in bands. It just sort of grew from there, and I started doing more music videos and other funny stuff. I really loved it – I love directing. I love performing, and I love writing. I just like the problem-solving aspect of all of it, and then I realized that it was something I was really good at, so I did it more and more. Both Language Lessons and Plan B were during 2020, which was not my intent, but it just kind of worked out that way. They’re very different movies in a lot of ways. I got really lucky to be able to do both of them and to have them be my simultaneous feature debut and have them be very different so that I’m really not able to be pigeonholed as a director at this point, which I’m thankful for.
What do you look for in the projects that you work on as an actress and director?
Something different. Something I haven’t done before. That’s the main thing I look for because I think that once people see you in something or see you do something, they’re like, “Oh, let’s just keep making that person do that thing that worked. Let’s keep doing that again.” That works for some people – it does not work for me. I get very bored if I’m doing the same thing over and over again, and I don’t like to be pigeonholed. I look for things that I want to see in the world for different reasons, and I look for things I haven’t done before.
Do you have anything else coming up you can share or any exciting summer plans you’re looking forward to?
I’m in Portland right now shooting a very small indie movie that I feel very proud of called My Dead Friend Zoe. I’m not sure when that’ll come out, but it’s near and dear to me, and it’s about a subject that I care a lot about, which is veterans with PTSD, PTSD in general, and the way that veterans are treated in this country. I’m excited about working on this and what it’ll turn into.
Are you the director or an actor in that project?
I’m an actor in it.
Do you have any other directing plans?
I do! We’ll see what happens. I’m not sure what’ll happen first. I have a lot of things in the works, but we’re also in the middle of a writer’s strike and a possible actors’ strike happening, so everything’s a little bit on hold at the moment.
What about Pride Month? Do you have any plans to celebrate?
God, I wish. I was just thinking, “Where and what is Portland Pride?” I haven’t been here, but I think I’m working all throughout it. We’re doing six-day weeks on this, so I don’t know if I’ll have a chance celebrate Pride here. But I would like to!